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Who Was Jean Rhys?

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  • Written By: Diane Goettel
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 November 2016
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Jean Rhys was a 20th century novelist who is best known for her novel Wide Sargasso Sea, which is a postcolonial and feminist response to Charlotte Bronte’s novel Jane Eyre, a Victorian classic. Jean Rhys was born on 24 August 1890 as Ella Gwendolen Rees Williams. She was born in Dominica, a West Indian Island which was once a British Colony. Her mother was a Scottish Creole, and her father was a Welsh man. Rhys lived in Dominica until her sixteenth year, when her family relocated to England. In her twenties and thirties, the author traveled throughout Europe, living an artistic Bohemian lifestyle.

Rhys’s first four novels were published during the second and third decades of the twentieth century. Her work was promoted by other, more well-known authors such as Ford Maddox Ford. It was not until 1966, however, when Wide Sargasso Sea was published, that Rhys became regarded as an important literary figure. In the interim, she withdrew from the public sphere. In 1967, the year following publication of Wide Sargasso Sea, Rhys was awarded the WH Smith Literary Award.

Biographies of the novelist intimate that these years were dark and difficult times for Rhys. Jean Rhys spent nearly two decades meditating upon, writing, and doing battle with the manuscript of Wide Sargasso Sea. The research present within the novel is a culmination of the author’s life. Like Antoinette, the main character, she was a white descendant of planters living in a postcolonial era.

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After Wide Sargasso Sea, the author wrote more works of fiction. None of them, however, received the same critical acclaim as Wide Sargasso Sea. Her last work, Smile Please, is an autobiography. However, the author passed away before it was finished.

Now that Rhys is considered to be one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, her papers and ephemera have been collected and are considered to have importance in the history of literature. They are currently kept at the University of Tulsa's McFarlin Library, Department of Special Collections and University Archives.

The following is a list of the author’s works:

  • The Left Bank and Other Stories
  • Postures
  • After Leaving Mr Mackenzie
  • Voyage in the Dark
  • Good Morning, Midnight
  • Wide Sargasso Sea
  • Tigers Are Better-Looking
  • My Day: Three Pieces
  • Sleep It Off Lady
  • Smile Please
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